Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Quest for Oscar

That's just a little bit facetious.
Had a production meeting last night for the film I'm shooting in ten days. Jesus it's scary how quickly this is coming up.

Couldn't help but be at least a little bit aware of the fact that the Oscars had been given out the night before - that I watched them from the exact same seat I chaired the meeting from. I did fairly well in predicting the winners, in fact in our little party-pool, I was winning until the last two categories changed my fortunes and dropped me to second. Usually I suck at predicting the winners. I also tied in the Oscar trivia contest. (I should have come first, but I made the mistake of second guessing an answer that I originally had correct- dumb.) That accomplishment is not too surprizing. My trivia knowledge is embarassingly good - particularly where film history is concerned... There are only four films that have ever won Best Picture that I haven't seen - one of which is Million Dollar Baby.
But anyhow...

Just wanted to muse on the making of a film.
This is my second as director. The first is still in editing.
The two are markedly different. The first one, I made a point of keeping it simple in as many production ways as possible. One location. One actor. No dialogue. This was countered significantly by the fact that we had TWO 12 hour days to shoot it in and there were a whopping 140 shots. My team was awesome. We totally flew - we had to. For the most part we kept the takes down, lighting was kept simple, and we rolled with the magic of the moment as often as possible. It's far from perfect, but when all my experienced director friends heard we planned to shoot 140 set-ups we were told we were nuts and that we had to plan to book more days. Now, it should be said that I DID get a time lapse shot, one reshoot, all the ambient sound and about three inserts on a third day - but that's neither uncommon nor unexpected. Point being, we DID get the 140 shots in two days. It was intense and fun.
This next time, there are entirely new challenges. It's virtually all dialogue - a challenge to make interesting in a visual medium. It's one location again. A dozen extras. Five actors, all sitting around one table, which means HUGE axis issues. (If you don't know about the concept of crossing the axis, try this.)
The plan for conquering the axis issues is three-fold.
1) Taking a page from the Reservoir Dogs approach and having a lot of shots where the camera is in motion - this allows us to effectively MOVE the axis with the camera.
2) Taking a page from Steven Soderberg in Ocean's Eleven - pin pointing a number of places in the script where adherence to the axis is going to be absolutely necessary.
3) Taking a second page from O's 11 - making certain that very early on there is a shot which clearly lays out the geography of the table - where everyone is sitting. And when it suits our needs, abandoning the concept of the axis entirely. Framing the camera from the centre of the table on the subjects a-la That's 70s Show will also aid this approach.

It has been said - by people much more talented than I - that film-making is like waging a war. No doubt that's an apt analogy in many ways. The logistics of mounting a film and waging a war are both hugely complex and both at the mercy of so many X-factors that the laws of chaos are in full effect.
I would go on to say that film-making is not only a war, but it is a war of attrition. Time and circumstances wear away at the integrity of your artistic vision. Planning and ingenuity pick away at the puzzle that is a film. But there is only so much planning that can be done. A certain amount of vision needs to be left for the set circumstance of the moment. Inspiration, innovation, ingenuity are your greatest weapons in the moment.
I think it was Winston Churchill who said that "In order to succeed, planning is not sufficent. You must also improvise." (I paraphrase.) Never more true than in film-making.

I believe that we are winning many of the battles. A few key early skirmishes are still being fought. We have a cast member who is very hard to get answers back from - the same can be said for our camera-op (who was our D.O.P on "Godot"- my first film), and our 2nd A.D. We only have one confirmed extra, my co-director stepped up to the plate yesterday about set-dressing... a long battle that has been. And he and I have disagreed on a number of points along the way. There are things I less want to skimp on - like back-ground details (although I think we've found a happy medium there); he is crankier about the schedule than I am (I understand that it is often necessary to shoot through the night - and rarely made issue of. But I grant that it would be nicer to not be shooting at 4am.) These two things are actually connected. I would rather spend the time (we have the location for 48 hours) to cover ourselves by dec-ing the background as fully as possible - something we can't go back on retroactively and do, and if it looks like hell, the movie sucks. Luckily the impact will be minimized by the choice to desaturate the image to Black and White, but still... spending one night a bit sleepy- fine by me. Especially seeing as we can be prepared for that and everyone can try to come in as well rested as possible. Anyhow... we're aiming to get started as early as possible, but the time has not yet been fixed - currently we're expecting a 3pm start.
Last night I was (doing a poor job of) sharing one of my planned shots (he is directing the actors I am directing the camera) and I could tell he didn't like it. Later when we were alone he said he didn't think it was focusing on the right thing. That may be so. But that's assuming that there is no other coverage of the same moment. I like the idea of the shot. It's not going to require much additional work (the camera will already be in that position.) and it provides an option that will change the pace of editing at a key moment in the film.
We may never use the shot - that's not the point. This project is (as was the last one) about learning. I think we learn more by shooting something interesting that we never use than by not (especially if we find we could have used it). I think this is one internal struggle I will win - not that it's about winning. I just think that what we have to lose doing the shot is minor compared to what we could lose NOT getting it.

To call up another combat metaphor - this one my own - film-making is an art of triage (battlefield medicine.) What do you sacrifice in order to save the most and best of what's left?

Anyhow, we're getting down to the wire. The next ten-days have alot of work to fill them. This is really where it all gets exciting.

Anyhow - these artistic differences are ultimately trivial. They're even necessary.

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